One must suspect that many eager readers, drawn to the gnostic
literary remains of antiquity by popular promoters like
Elaine Pagels, are genuinely surprised to discover that much of this
literature borders on the unreadable. The attention flags at these dreary,
over-stuffed catalogs of botched gods.
The gnostic gods are many, like the gods of the pagan Greeks; the
gnostics have cast off from the shores of monotheism and reverted to
the normal pagan theology of multiple occupancy of the heavenlies. But something is lacking:
story-telling skills? Human interest?
These gods are not brimming with personality like the Greek pagan gods, nor are
the stories told about them half so entertaining. Still Ms. Pagels tries to
pick them up and brush them off, having
convinced herself that polytheism is more favorable to women's
rights than monotheism. Has anyone told her about the rape epidemic
in polytheist India?
Like the Gods of the Greeks and Romans, these entities also mate and produce
offspring. But there are no love stories told about them, nor even pursuit
and rape stories as with the Greek gods, unless you count the rape of Eve
by the archons. They are stuck with peculiar names like 'church' (ecclesia), because their creators labored under the discipline of having to think
up names for their gods which could be pointed to in scripture. Like a
pet turtle, you have to feed and take care of them, but unlike a dog or
cat, they have no personality. This theology lacks the credibility of monotheism,
but also lacks the entertainment value of paganism; it is zero for two.
Its merchandisers in the modern era cast about in all directions
to make it palatable, repackaging it as something else, like depth psychology, or
feminism, or unitarianism, because taken straight up, it does not
sell itself. The unfortunate reader lured in by these promises and representations is
surprised to discover how much material he must wade through to
discover these nuggets, if indeed he ever discovers them at all.
A book like Ovid's Metamorphoses is a fun read; the reader, even
if not sold on paganism, comes away glad to have made the
acquaintance of such interesting characters, albeit unreal. The
dogged reader of gnostic literature can report no comparable
experience. What is gnosticism? It is paganism stripped bare of its entertainment value.
There is one noteworthy exception, a book well worth reading though with
caution: the Gospel of Thomas. This book has the air of genuine antiquity.
Many of today's evangelical readers want to date it late, because, "What
I would stress about this gospel is that its 'character'—
particularly its sayings, which are distinctive to this gospel— makes it
quite different from the canonical gospels. This suggests that it was
written after, and on the basis of, not only the canonical gospels but
also several of Paul's letters and other New Testament documents." (Ben
Witherington III, What Have They Done with Jesus? p. 28). Later, because
"different"? It is different for sure. But not only will we have to date
'Thomas' late on these grounds, but also several of Paul's letters, which
cannot have been written by Paul because they seem to discuss something
that looks like gnosticism! Where will it end?
Let's try a different approach and take seriously, not dismissing as legendary, what the early
church said about the origin of gnosticism. If there is heresy, there must
needs be heretics, and we are told who they were: "Simon and Cerinthus,
the false apostles, concerning whom it is written that no man shall
cleave unto them for there is in them deceit wherewith they bring men to
destruction." (Epistle of the Apostles, Chapter 1). Are these
characters legendary? Who wrote the Gospel of Thomas, and why?
Who, What, When
Who wrote the Gospel of Thomas? One clue is that the book itself points to a successor. When a religion
claims to be the legitimate heir of another religion of accepted authority,
its devotees search the archives, looking for a promise of a successor.
The Muslims find such a promise in Jesus' talk of the 'Comforter.' Christians
understand 'the Comforter' to be the Holy Spirit, but Muslims say it's
Mohammed. In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, the promise of a successor
is explicit, not strained:
"Jesus said, 'When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on
your faces and worship. That one is your Father.'" (Gospel of Thomas 15).
The promised one is not Jesus, born of a woman, both in the flesh of the
incarnation, and also in heaven according to this peculiar theology: "...but
my true mother gave me life" (Gospel of Thomas 101). Simon the Samaritan
was a copy-cat of Jesus, who made a divine claim similar to that of Jesus, though
he upped the ante: while Jesus claimed to be the Word incarnate, Simon
claimed to be the unbegotten Father incarnate. "[Simon] represented
himself, in a word, as being the loftiest of all powers, that is, the Being
who is the Father over all, and he allowed himself to be called by whatsoever
title men were pleased to address him." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies,
Book 1, Chapter 23.1). Simon in his turn attracted a copy-cat, Menander,
who made the same claims as Simon did! Simon "...appear[ed] among
men to be a man, while yet he was not a man." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies,
Book 1, Chapter 23.3) This coming one who "is your Father" must
be Simon; who else in the history of the world ever made that claim? Since
there is a 'coming attraction' pointing to a specific successor, this book
might well originate either with Simon himself or in the circle of his followers.
Tradition reports that Simon's movement produced its own literature:
"For we know that Simon and Cleobius, and their followers, have
compiled poisonous books under the name of Christ and of His
disciples, and do carry them about in order to deceive you who love
Christ, and us His servants." (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 6,
Section 3, Chapter XVI, p. 908). Do any of these works survive? The present
work is an excellent candidate. Of course, if the Gospel of Thomas shows
literary dependence upon Tatian's Diatessaron, as some say, then it is a
work of the late second century. There are several reasons to think it
really is early, however.
The testimony of antiquity about Simon is often discarded
nowadays, in keeping with the modern theme of preferring to
disbelieve all actual contemporary testimony and documentation.
Ascribing the preliminary work on gnosticism to Simon is however a
significant admission contrary to interest. The early church
'heresy-hunters' stressed that heresy was late, and orthodoxy early.
This may have been true enough in their home-town: in Carthage, it may be, the arrival of the first gnostic teacher was recent enough to
be remembered, but when the focus broadens to include Palestine and
adjacent nations, the picture changes, and a man who knew the
apostles comes to the fore. It may be objected, this 'admission' is contrary to interest
but impossible. But the Marcionite prologues say, "Romans are in the
parts of Italy. These were reached beforehand by false apostles, and
under the name of our Lord Jesus Christ had been brought in to the law
and the prophets." (Marcionite Prologue). Perhaps this only means a
Judaizing temper inimical to the writer. Who brought the gospel to Rome
is a thorny problem; maybe the correct answer is, you don't want to
know. It's not out of the question that Simon's heresy became very successful there,
poaching on the Christian church just as the Christians poached on the
God-fearers attached to the synagogue. We have seen similar hijackings in
the modern era, where Christian missionaries have spread the gospel in
foreign lands, only to see the harvest they sowed reaped by the Mormons
or some other heterodox group who have shouldered their way in.
In the mid-second century, Justin Martyr testifies about this sect,
which still existed at that day, "And, thirdly, because after
Christ's ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men
who said that they themselves were gods; and they were not only not
persecuted by you, but even deemed worthy of honors. There was a Samaritan,
Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius
Caesar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by
virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a
God, and as a God was honored by you with a statue, which statue was
erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this
inscription, in the language of Rome:—'Simoni Deo Sancto.' 'To
Simon the holy God.' And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even
of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first God.
. ." (Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 26). That god-claims
come in clusters is verified by modern experience; to get over the
embarrassing fact that Jesus kicked up a flurry of copy-cat
god-claimants, when they say He Himself made no such claim, they have
to deny there was any such person as Simon, although he is mentioned
not only in the New Testament but extensively throughout the early
church writers. Justin would seem to have been mistaken about the
inscription, because a similar inscription was excavated in the sixteenth
century: "Now in this same island was found in the sixteenth century
an inscription to the Sabine God Semo Sancus, i.e. Semoni Sanco Deo
Fidio. It is of course quite possible that Justin saw this
inscription, and being a Samaritan ignorant of Latin mythology
mistook this for an inscription referring to Simon Magus."
(George Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century, Lecture III, p.
52). Though it is quite likely there was such a statue, Justin
may have misidentified it. A reader who has never studied the history of
secular Bible scholarship could scarcely believe the way this field
of inquiry was warped by the Unitarianism which took over the
academy in the nineteenth century. Since it is a foundational
religious conviction of these people that Jesus cannot, must not,
have claimed to be God,— the central, defining conviction of their
religion is that He is not,— history must fall in line behind religion,
whatever well-attested facts must be denied to achieve this.
There is nothing inherently incredible about the outline of the early
church's testimony to Simon's movement, which is widespread and fairly consistent:
"It was a serious mistake of the critics to regard Simon
Magus as a fiction. . .The whole figure, as well as the doctrines
attributed to Simon (see Acts of the Apostles, Justin, Irenĉus,
Hippolytus), not only have nothing improbable in them, but suit very
well the religious circumstances which we must assume for Samaria. .
. He is really a counterpart to Jesus, whose activity can just as
little have been unknown to him as that of Paul." (Adolf
von Harnack. History of Dogma, Volume 1 (p. 307). Kindle
Although some fanciful stories have coalesced around his figure,
including flying contests reminiscent of the Toldoth Jeschu material, there is no reason
to deny his historicity, nor his status as arch-heretic, nor his hostile encounter with the
apostles as recorded is the book of Acts. The Gospel of Thomas may well be